Yesterday a bright young scholar offered me one idea he has as for why the Nguyễn Dynasty referred to themselves and some other people in the kingdom as Han.
He pointed out that when the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty, the term Han gained importance as a term to differentiate the Chinese from the Manchus. He also pointed out that people like the Koreans looked down on the Manchus as barbarians, and saw themselves as upholders of the culture of the Ming Dynasty, which the Manchus had overthrown.
These points are by now well-known. In Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, for instance, the editors talk a bit about this in their introduction, and argue that in periods when China was ruled by “barbarians,” such as the Mongols and the Manchus, the literati in places like Korea, Japan and Vietnam “actually disputed the centrality of ‘China.’” (pg. 5)
I think saying that they disputed the centrality of the Middle Kingdom is an exaggeration, but they definitely took great pride in the fact that they maintained rituals and wore robes that signified the “true” tradition of the scholarly elite [nho/ru 儒].
Korea has been noted as a particularly clear example of this phenomenon. What this young scholar pointed out to me yesterday, however, is that there is an indication that Gia Long thought in similar ways.
In the late eighteenth century, John Barrow participated in British mission to the Qing empire led by George Macartney. Along the way the members of this mission visited Cochinchina, and Barrow later published an account of this visit entitled, A Voyage to Cochinchina (available here).
While in Cochinchina, Barrow got to learn a lot about “Caung-shung.” This was how Gia Long was known at the time, as he was still following the era title of the Lê Dynasty – Cảnh Hưng 景興, which became “Caung-shung” to Europeans.
Barrow writes at length about Caung-shung, and even gives an account of his daily schedule. In talking about his eating habits, Barrow makes the following statement:
“Like a true Chinese descended, as he boasts to be, from the imperial family of Ming, he always eats alone, not permitting either his wife or any other part of his family to sit down to the same table with him.”
So according to Barrow, Gia Long believed that he was descended from the Ming Dynasty. Did something get lost in translation here? Was Barrow crazy?
Actually, to me this makes a lot of sense. Given the way that the Ming was seen as more legitimate than the Qing to members of the elite in the region (like we know was the case in Korea), and given that many Ming loyalists had earlier fled to the Mekong Delta, I think it totally makes sense that Gia Long would think of himself in such ways.
This does not mean that Gia Long felt that he was re-establishing the Ming Dynasty when he came to power, but it does probably mean that he felt that he was re-establishing a cultural world that the Ming had been the center of, that the Lê had participated in, and that the Tây Sơn had disrupted.
This cultural world was what some people at that time saw as the Han cultural world, with “Han” here referring not to an ethnic group but to a cultural group, a group that was forced to defend its identity when a group that was different from it – the Manchus –intruded into its world.
As such, the Han cultural group came to be dominated by barbarians in the area of what is now China, but in the nineteenth century, as the quotes in the entry below indicate, the Han cultural group still flourished and people were even able to “become” Han in the area of what is today Vietnam.
For that, they were surely thankful to Caung-shung. . . that great descendant of the Ming imperial family who always ate alone.